A Conversation with Korea Journalist and Nieman Fellow Seung Ryun Kim
March 18, 2015
Veteran Korean journalist Seung Ryun Kim, assistant editor at Channel A’s political desk, prime-time host, and 2014-15 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, recently visited Asia Foundation headquarters in San Francisco. Kim is the 27th Asian journalist sponsored by The Asia Foundation for this fellowship program since 1956. His participation is made possible through the generous support of YBM, Inc. and the Sungkok Journalism Foundation. The Foundation’s Asian American Exchange unit arranged Kim’s public talk on national security and U.S. policy with respect to Korea, Japan, and China. In Asia editor Alma Freeman sat down with him to discuss Korea’s economy, rising tensions among youth, and hopes for the 2016 general election.
Korea’s economic growth rate has been on a declining trend in the last 10 years. What are your thoughts on this?
Korea’s economic growth was made possible by a strong manufacturing base led by big companies such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and POSCO. We are now in the middle of a transition. In the past, the Korean government and companies invested early in technology that is applicable in today’s manufacturing. For example, during the 1990s, Korea invested in research and development for things like HDTV, cell phones, and even high speed trains. This decision was a good one, and bore fruit in the following years.
But around the year 2000, the government made a decision to spend more of the budget on fundamental research in nanotech, bio, and space – fields that would not result in the immediate application of products, but would contribute to longer-term benefits for the economy. This was a big decision. Samsung sells a lot of cell phones, but in the last 10 years, they have sent billions of dollars to Qualcomm for its patent use on CDMA technology. Korea wanted to become a first mover, not a follower.
The government’s decision was right, but the money was ill spent on researchers whose primary output was to publish research papers in English journals. The problem was that these researchers were pressured to focus on the quantity of the papers, not the quality, in order to meet the government’s minimum requirement. This is why after 2000 we hardly saw any of the breakthroughs in product innovation that we saw in the 1990s.
Another reason our economy is not experiencing growth is related to our own mindset – we are stuck in a mold that working hard is paramount. While working hard is of course important, it’s not the only solution in today’s competitive marketplace, where there is more demand for entrepreneurial skills and mindsets. We need more young talent with those skills, and to make that happen, we have to restructure our education system. Still today, when young entrepreneurial minds look to start their own businesses, their parents often say don’t do it, it’s too risky, and suggest they pursue a job at Samsung or be a public servant with long-term job security. Our generation has not succeeded in teaching this younger generation how to be independent thinkers, and they have therefore yet to build on instincts needed to become an entrepreneur. In other words, we failed to redefine who is talented. Is it a student who is good at a standardized test? Or one who can find a solution to something without a fixed answer? For this matter, big corporations have great responsibility. Once the different criteria of a company like Samsung, to hire more independent minds, are open to the public, parents and students will change their perception.
Another challenge is China’s economic growth and influence in Korea. Chinese cellphone manufacturers copy the technology that went into the development of the Samsung Galaxy, and are thus able to sell for half the price at a similar quality. This erodes a company like Samsung’s market share. The same happens in shipbuilding, steel-making, and chemical industries, where Korea has held a leading edge. The fear of losing our competitive edge takes center stage, and Koreans are increasingly worried that they don’t have much time to reverse this trend.
Can you talk about the tension between Korea’s older and younger generation?
There is a common expression in Korea that people in their teens and 20s use often, which is “generation surplus.” In their uncles’ generation, even though incomes were much lower, there were still a lot of job opportunities – when they graduated, they mostly struggled over whether they should work for Samsung or LG. This young generation is working hard – perhaps the hardest ever in college – but they can’t find jobs as easily as my generation did. South Korea’s youth unemployment rate hit a record high of 9 percent in December, according to official statistics, much higher than the overall unemployment rate of 3.4 percent. They are starting to blame the system. Without having gained work experience in their 20s, by the time these young people reach their 30s, they give up. That is a major source of unrest. Having so many people in their 30s still depending on their parents is a very painful thing to see. Exacerbating this issue is that the older generation rarely leave their jobs at companies until they retire, so jobs don’t open up, and people in their 20s feel they are victims of the older generation.
Last month, protests erupted at McDonalds from part-time workers demanding higher wages and better working conditions. This is increasingly common in Korea – companies are creating replaceable jobs so they can keep wages low. The result is that young workers have fewer opportunities for getting real experience to guide their career paths. How can we blame the young generation when there are so few other opportunities?
Korea will hold a general election in 2016. What are the expectations for new leadership and what will some of the biggest issues be?
Voters don’t expect much, much like anywhere else, unfortunately. Voter turnout for young Koreans is half that of people in their 60s and 70s. Political positions aren’t always held in the highest regard in Korea. It’s taboo for a young person in his or her 20s to say, I’m going to run for office – it’s not viewed as an admirable career aspiration, as opposed to the respect a high-ranking public official would have garnered in the past.
Many people in politics work hard but are too preoccupied with getting reelected, which means they have to be loyal to their political faction and can’t think or act independently. What’s the alternative? We need a system that encourages young people to go into politics with a different set of values. The saying that “politics is too important to be left to the politicians” still holds true. Without restructuring this process and finding ways for the best and brightest to serve his or her country, we won’t succeed in regaining public trust.
Welfare and tax policy will once again be two of the biggest issues in the upcoming election. But this election will be a little different from the last presidential election in 2012. Three years ago, two major candidates – including President Park – promised bigger welfare benefits without really explaining how these benefits would be funded.
But now, voters are looking for answers to questions such as: Do we still want bigger government benefits? Is Korea’s middle class ready and willing to pay more in taxes, beyond just the top 10 percent who shoulder the bulk of the tax burden? And, if we fail to agree that we cannot collect a sufficient amount of tax revenue for a larger welfare system, what, and from which socio-economic group, are we willing to sacrifice? Responsible politicians have to lead the debate over these questions. Giving empty promises to satiate the voters would only worsen the situation after the election.
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